As the national gun control debate continues to heat up, gun sales are skyrocketing, and they have shot up here in Kern County. Local retailers saw gun sales triple in January compared to last year. And, a lot of the people arming themselves have never owned a gun before.
Retailers say the majority of customers are buying for self defense. But, while they may feel safer owning a gun, how they handle it can come with legal or mental consequences or both.
Each pull of the trigger could end and save a life. The California Department of Justice reports more than 21,000 guns were sold in Kern County in 2011. And, not surprising to Robert Dalessio, the Director of Training at Second Amendment Sports, more people hold that power every day right here at home.
"No, we're Kern County," Dalessio laughed.
Dalessio says he hasn't seen sales this strong since the first Assault Weapons Ban in 1994. Sales spiked again in 2008 when President Obama was elected. And, Dalessio has seen a steady increase in sales since Assembly Bill 109 was signed, to reduce the state's prison population. That was followed by the Sandy Hook tragedy, which sparked the heated debate over gun regulation.
In January 2012, Second Amendment Sports performed 339 background checks for gun purchases. In January 2013, that number nearly tripled to 1,140. And, Dalessio says sales to first-time gun buyers are up more than 200 percent.
"I think everybody knows what the crime rates are right now," said Dalessio. "I think we know what the state budget is for law enforcement not getting enough money allocated and more officers on the street to take care of the problem, so people feel like they need the ability to take care of themselves."
In 2005, Nora Weber took care of herself and her husband with her 357 magnum.
"I told that guy you move and I shoot. And, he moved and I shot," said Weber.
Having only fired it once before, Weber shot a man four times after he broke into their home.
"The first time I hit him here," Nora said pointing to her chest. "Second time here, third time, blew his shoulder out, and the fourth time I grazed his head. I was backing up shooting sideways at this guy."
In 2006, 71-year-old Norm Laxon shot and killed one of three intruders who, police say, forcibly broke into his house and hurt him and his wife.
And in 2011, a security camera caught footage inside a Bakersfield Max Muscle store.
Robbers put a gun to the head of store owner, Jeff Revelle, and forced his girlfriend into the bathroom. That gave him time to grab his gun.
"I mean, as far as I'm concerned, it saved my life," said Revelle after the incident.
Revelle fired and didn't hit the men, but scared them away.
Scott Spielman is Kern County's Assistant District Attorney.
"You can only use deadly force when there is an eminent danger," said Spielman.
Spielman says all cases involving the the use of deadly force are investigated by law enforcement. Police will determine if there is probable cause to turn the case over to the D.A.'s office, opening the case up to a judge and jury. Jury instructions tell the panel what constitutes self defense, fearing death or great bodily harm to oneself or another.
If they decide it was not reasonable to use deadly force and the person was killed, that could constitute involuntary manslaughter or worse.
"If absolutely no reasonable person would have thought that a reviewing, either judge or a jury, thought that's why the person used the gun, then they are potentially looking at a murder charge," explained Spielman.
Spielman says although felony filings in Bakersfield were up 20 percent in 2012, he hasn't seen an increase in deadly force self defense cases. But, he admits there's a potential for it. But, he's hoping that doesn't happen with proper training. While there are no education requirements to purchase a long gun, California law states handgun owners must complete handgun safety certification. And, Dalessio says, like guns, his training courses have seen a similar spike in sales.
"And, the good news is most of them seem to be interested in becoming familiar with firearm safety and marksmanship," said Dalessio. "And, we teach you how to use your primary weapon, which is always your mind."
While courses can teach responsible gun storage, how to keep it out of the bad guy's hands, and safety techniques, they can't mentally prepare for the repercussions of shooting another person. For this story, some people we tried talking to, who years ago used a weapon to defend themselves, still weren't ready to talk about it.
"If you shoot and kill someone," said Sheriff Donny Youngblood, "And, you are totally right, it has an impact on your life forever."
Sheriff Youngblood knows, as a law enforcement officer and from experience, and he warns any gun owner, there are mental consequences from firing a weapon even if it's in self defense.
"It's not a badge of honor. It's not one of those things that you like that feeling. So, there are a lot of things that are going to occur and think about that when you have that firearm," warned Sheriff Youngblood.
All of that potential protection, power, and possible ramifications, is now in a rapidly growing number of palms across Kern County.
"Having to use such tools against another human being should not be taken lightly. But unfortunately, if you are in a position where you have to use it, nothing else is going to take its place," said Dalessio.